Except for a brief period following last month's tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan, the attention of the world media has been focused this year on the revolutions underway in the Arab world. Several online commentators, most notably Tariq Ali and Andrew Sullivan, have tried to make sense of this multinational wave of uprisings by comparing it to the European revolutions of 1848, which had similar goals, spread with equal speed through Europe's cities a century and a half ago, and came – unfortunately for the insurgents – to a bad end. As I think this is actually a pretty fair historical comparison, I present herewith a short summary of the actual 1848 uprisings, which has to date been missing from these commentators' remarks.
Of the 1848 revolutions, one may say that they were caused by poor harvests, unemployment, the dissatisfaction of the educated middle class with repressive monarchical governments, and the related aspiration of romantic nationalists to create unified linguistic nation-states. The first rebellion of the year broke out in January in the Kingdom of Sicily, but the real flashpoint for the continental insurrection was Europe's cultural capital, Paris, where in February urban mobs expelled King Louis-Philippe and bourgeois legislators proclaimed the Second Republic. News of the French revolution spread quickly, thanks to cheap newspapers and widespread literacy. In Italy, insurgents forced King Charles Albert of Piedmont to grant his subjects a constitution and drove Austrian troops out of Milan; later that year an army organized by Italy's princes besieged Austria's forts in northern Italy. In Germany, liberal reformers convened the Frankfurt Assembly to promote a unified German republic, insurgents expelled the Grand Duke of Baden, crowds seized control of Berlin, and Wilhelm IV of Prussia felt obliged to issue a constitution creating a Prussian Assembly. In Austria, rebels seized control of Vienna and forced Metternich, symbol of the monarchical restoration of 1815, to flee for his life. The Austrian rebellion ultimately drove King Ferdinand, one of the more comically imbecilic of the Hapsburgs (famous for his demand "I am the emperor and I want dumplings!"), to abdicate in favor of his nephew Franz Joseph. Nationalist uprisings also broke out in Hungary and Romania.
In the shorter term, these revolutions were failures. The new French republic violently suppressed an uprising by Paris workers in June, and in December conservatives and rural voters seeking order elected the authoritarian Louis Napoleon as president. He overthrew the republic three years later. The Frankfurt Assembly never obtained any real power and degenerated quickly into a talking-shop. The Austrian monarchy regained control of Vienna and northern Italy, and recaptured Hungary in 1849 with Russian aid. The new Austrian emperor, Franz Joseph, held his throne for 67 years. The Sicilian and Romanian revolutions were suppressed. Europe's bourgeoisie discovered they hated proletarian radicalism more than authoritarian government, and became more conservative. This is all bad news for the Arab world, if the revolutions that began there this January follow the 1848 model.
There was, however, brighter historical news in the long term. Few of Europe's monarchs could ignore the crowds that besieged the continent's principal cities and drove their royal kinsmen from their thrones, and many decided that the best way to prevent future revolution was to grant at limited concessions to the more moderate protestors – usually a constitution and an elected parliament. These concessions prevented uprisings from occurring in Denmark and the Netherlands, and pacified insurgents in Prussia and Piedmont. Several Arab monarchs, including the kings of Morocco and Jordan, appear to be following this example (consciously or not) in 2011. None of the rest of Europe's monarchical governments felt they could ever again afford to ignore the popular will in their countries; gone forever were the days when, as in 1814-15, the princes of Europe could trade people like commodities at the conference table. Louis Napoleon, after his coup d'etat, felt the need to legitimize his rule with popular plebiscites, while Austria's emperor eventually (after losing northern Italy in the wars of the Risorgimento) granted limited autonomy to Hungary. Admittedly, there is another, darker solution that some governments devised to the problem of popular restiveness post-1848: uniting people through warfare, either foreign adventures (as with Louis Napoleon's new French Empire) or wars of national unity (as with Prussia in Germany and Piedmont in Italy). Let us hope the successors to the Arab 1848 resist the temptation to follow this particular example.
(My principal sources for the above are Michael Rapport's 1848: Year of Revolution [New York, 2009] and the first chapter of Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Capital [New York, 1975]; for a short introduction to the subject, see this article by Kurt Anderson.)